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November 19th, 2018

If we close our eyes for a moment and concentrate on the sensations of the hand, we can probably discern the sensations of the separate fingers, the thumb as separate from the ring finger, but if we concentrate on the hand generally, it’s not too difficult for the whole sensation of the hand to dissolve into a cloud of feeling. 


We can do this with the whole body.  Perhaps there’s a particularly bright discomfort in the back from sitting or standing too long, or a recent paper cut or stubbed toe is lighting up.  Again, as with the hand, if we try to focus on the entire sensation of the body, it’s not difficult for the whole light show to resolve into cloud.


From the standpoint of neurobiology, we can define different sensing mechanisms that are responsible for this.  In the skin, for instance, there are tiny little cells, like mechanical gadgets in some cases that are responsible for a feeling of pressure against the skin, or stretching, or even heat.  The presence of any of phenomena trigger these cells that then fire off signals to the brain to indicate what is going on.  Even when nothing in particular seems to be going on, such mechanisms are still firing and communicating with the brain.


An interesting aspect of this whole system is that it is not evenly distributed.  We do not have nearly as many of these sensing cells in the skin of the thigh as we do in our hands.  We can experience this directly when we close our eyes and concentrate on the sensations we are feeling.  The hands seem to be far more active and dense than the thighs, and yet the hands are much smaller.


One benefit of exploring in this exercise is simply to notice how arbitrary the naming of certain things can be.  The word ‘finger’ is of little consequence to an infant who has just figured out how to use such a limb effectively.


All of this has much in common with star gazing.


Since we have had eyes that can look up, we have been seeing a giant cloud of tiny lights up in the clear skies.


And yet, no matter the culture nor place on earth, we have, without knowing what those lights are, ascribed all sorts of shapes and stories to the stars.


The stars did not decide on the constellations, we did.  And their connection and relation is completely arbitrary. 


And yet.


We can get lost in an idea of some thing’s identity and lose touch with it’s nature in terms of basic reality.  This is akin to being obsessed about the constellation and completely forgetting about the stars.


Imagine for a moment zooming through the cosmos to some other neighboring solar system and gazing at the same stars that make up our constellations here on earth.  Depending on exactly where we zoom off to, it is possible to see the exact same stars.  We would be observing the same part of reality.  And yet, would we be able to pick out the same constellations?  Not at all.  The identity of a constellation is directly related to our perspective and the angle and position of that perspective.


Positioning here, is essential.



Juxtapose for a moment these two situations:


Two people on some news show talking about politics.  They awkwardly attempt to talk towards each other while still facing the camera. 


And this situation.



Someone trying to point out a star to a friend.  Such a person brings a friend in close, their faces next to each other in an attempt to try and have that friend occupy the same space.  Such a person will probably even move a little, so the friend can occupy the exact place they were, and then recalibrate how they are pointing at the sky to account for the shift in position.


Notice the ways in which the second situation is full of generosity.  The friend is willing to change position, to come closer to the physical perspective in order to see and understand.  And the friend trying to point out that star is willing to give up their own position somewhat in order to make room.  Both are willing to get closer to one another.


It’s often pointed out that people are easily brought together when they have a common enemy.  They give up facing off at one another in order to stand next to one another in the face of an enemy.


But what this often reiterated strategy of bringing people together really describes is a change in positioning.  An enemy is not necessarily required, just some common object of focus.


We can go back to the exercise at the beginning, close our eyes, concentrate on the cloud of sensation that we ascribe to our hand, and then simply rotate our hand.  Our relationship to what we think of as ‘hand’ has changed a little bit, we feel it a bit differently, but this does not really change the hand at all, just our relationship to it.  In this case, the constellation disappears, but it’s still the same stars.


Whatever constellation we wish to ascribe to the new relationship is still arbitrary.  Concentrating on the constellation more than the basic reality of seeing stars, is the trap of identity.



This episode references Episode 157: Conquer or Concur?, and Episode 17: The Identity Danger.

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Podcast Ep. 218: Star Gazing

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